Does the Doctrine of the Trinity Matter?

Does the Doctrine of the Trinity Matter? January 14, 2022

Does the Doctrine of the Trinity Matter?

Understanding What the Trinity is: Father, Son, Holy Spirit

I have argued here several times that doctrine matters because God cares what we think and say about him. This is contrary to what some American Christians think. They (some) think a doctrine doesn’t matter unless it has some practical application.

Over my many years of studying and teaching Christian theology I have heard numerous times, from Christians, that the doctrine of the Trinity does not matter. How well I remember on colleague at a Christian university who told me that, to him, the doctrine of the Trinity is just “mumbo jumbo.” Another Christian told me the doctrine of the Trinity is “cosmic numerology.”

One of the first times I taught the doctrine of the Trinity to a class of students, one student came up to me after class and said “But you still haven’t explained the Trinity to us.” What I should have replied is “Nobody can explain ‘the Trinity’ to you, but I was explaining to you the doctrine of the Trinity.” But I’m sure that would not have satisfied the student.

I agree with Swiss theologian Emil Brunner that the doctrine of the Trinity is a “protective device.” It is not spelled out in scripture, but it is necessary to protect the scriptural testimony about God, about Jesus Christ, and about the Holy Spirit.

I have never understood how someone can read John 14-17 and not come away with some idea of the Trinity, however rudimentary. Jesus promises the Holy Spirit as “another ‘paraklete’.” And he prays to the Father, asking the Father to make the disciples “one” even as he and the Father are one. I will stop there. Read John 14-17 and see if you can understand all that is there without developing some idea of the Trinity.

The ancient Christian doctrine of the Trinity, however, evolved through conflicts between Christian leaders and thinkers, on the one hand, and heretics on the other hand. The main group of heretics who denied the Trinity were the fourth century Arians and semi-Arians. Another group were the Sabellians/Modalists. Both represented the Godhead in a way that completely conflicts with the testimony of Jesus to himself, to his Father God, and to the Holy Spirit.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Now, here comes the first controversial part of this blog essay. My own considered opinion is that Arianism, in any form, is unchristian because it denies the deity of Jesus Christ, the incarnation of God, which is central to the gospel. However, over the years I have come to think that Modalism/Sabellianism is not as serious a heresy as Arianism. I think it arises out of confusion. All modalists I have ever talked with think the classical doctrine of the Trinity amounts to “tritheism,” a form of polytheism. Of course, I think they are wrong, I have come to understand their confusion. As long as they affirm the deity of Jesus, and worship him as God, I am open to accepting modalists as fellow Christians, even if confused ones.

Here is the second controversial part of this bog essay. The doctrine of the Trinity is a product of theology, of theologizing. It did not simply “fall out of the Bible,” as some would have it (if it has any value at all). As I said, I personally do not know how someone can read John 14-17 and not come up with some concept of the Trinity similar to the later developed doctrine of the Trinity. And yet, the full doctrine of the Trinity did not arrive until the fourth century and is still being worked on by theologians such as John Zizioulas (Eastern Orthodox) and Jürgen Moltmann (Protestant).

So what is the doctrine of the Trinity? It is simply the belief and teaching that God, Yahweh, is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, completely united and equal in every way, sharing one “substance,” but three distinct persons in perfect communion. I insist that my students never say “separate persons,” but only “distinct persons.” And I teach them that the word “persons” is misleading because of our modern, Western notions of “person.” I teach them to strip the individualism from the concept of “person” and think of persons as relational in nature.

When I was in seminary one of my professors, Dr. Ralph Powell, taught us to teach the doctrine of the Trinity using the acrostic T.R.I.U.N.E. : Three recognized as God, Regarded as distinct persons, Immanent and eternal, not merely economic or temporal, United in essence, No inequality, and Explains all other doctrines but is itself inscrutable.

I have always taught my students to avoid analogies drawn from inanimate objects such as H2O or an egg or a three-leaf clover. I have taught them to use analogies drawn from human life because we are created in God’s image and likeness and God is personal, not a thing. The analogy I like best comes from the fourth century Cappadocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory, and Gregory). It is sometimes called the “social analogy.” It compares the Trinity with a family with no dysfunction at all. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga wrote an article published in Christianity Today called “The Perfect Family.” There he used the social analogy very ably.

The other personal analogy is the so-called “psychological analogy” that compares the Trinity with a single human person who has, like all human beings, three aspects or dimensions. Augustine of Hippo used that analogy and compared Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to a single human being’s “memory, understanding, and will.” I don’t like that analogy because it leans into modalism.

Now to the question of this blog post. Does the doctrine of the Trinity matter? I believe it does because every alternative to it damages the gospel and misrepresents God. God is not pleased when we misrepresent him and people are not helped in their spiritual, Christian lives by distortions of the gospel.

But, also, the doctrine of the Trinity, especially the social analogy, can help us understand ourselves, as beings created in God’s image and likeness, as intended for community. God is a community of three persons living eternally in perfect harmony. So we are intended for harmonious community and, when we achieve that, however, imperfectly, God is pleased and we are fulfilled in our humanity.

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